Ethical truth

I just think the idea that ethical truths are universal and timeless is just silly. Take this question from “Ask Philosophers”: “Once capital punishment was right and fornication was wrong. Now the reverse seems generally true. Is there any way that philosophy can prepare us for future alterations in our values, perhaps by indicating where they are likely to arise?”


It is not at all obvious that captial punishment used to be morally permissible. What is obvious is that most people, or some powerful people, or something along those lines thought it was morally permissible (that is, “right” or “OK”). It may well be that it was always morally impermissible (that is, “wrong”), but people didn’t realize this. That would certainly be my view.

There’s nothing peculiar about what I’m suggesting. People used to think the earth was at the center of the universe. It wasn’t. They were wrong. People used to think it was OK to leave babies on the sides of mountains to die in the noonday sun. They too were wrong. Maybe the same goes for capital punishment. And even sex outside of marriage.

So philosophy can at least contribute that sort of clarification. And maybe a bit more: By examining our presumptions carefully, perhaps philosophy can help us realize that what we think, even what we really, firmly believe, isn’t right, after all.

Why was leaving babies on the sides of mountains to die in the noonday sun bad always; why is this a truth like the heliocentric solar system? Its not.

Infanticide is only wrong because we’ve coordinated on an equilibrium in which it is wrong. It didn’t have to be that way and some day we may migrate to a different equilibrium in which killing your newborn is ok. Some people call this “relativism” and scoff at the idea that ethics are “socially constructed,” but ethical truths are no different than economic truths like “little green pieces of paper of value and they can be used for trade.” There is no universal and timeless fact of nature that makes money valuable ((The time is coming when there probably won’t be paper money.)). We’ve just decided it is so ((The interesting question is what the hell does this process entail? I mean, what does “we” mean? Does a majority of society need to agree with the fact for it to be true? Everyone? And what does it mean to coordinate? I don’t think voting or explicit political processes are enough… there’s too much implicit facts for them to be generated by explicit processes.)).

Importantly, economic truths (and their cousins, ethical truths) are objective facts as much as physical truths are. I can’t just make up my own economic facts just like I can’t make up physical facts. Me wishing gravity pointed up doesn’t make it so and this piece of scrap paper on my desk is not money just because I really, really want it to be. Economic facts are facts. So what if the mechanism for making them so is human action (versus God or the Big Bang).

Similarly, ethical truths, while created through social processes, are nonetheless facts.

Ethical and economic facts are weird facts, though. They’re not immutable (you can’t kill your infant anymore), they’re hierarchical (“money” only makes sense in an “economic system”) and there may be two true facts that contradict each other (“murder is wrong” and “capital punishment is right”) ((If you’re interested in professional philosophizing on these points, see Searle’s Construction of Social Reality)).

Frankly, physicists have it easy compared to us social scientists!

6 thoughts on “Ethical truth”

  1. I’d rather deffer to the experts. I enjoy greatly Wittgenstein II’s ideas about language, meaning and rules (and philosophy and the intellect in general).

    I don’t enjoy so much the secondary literature, the philosophers’ Wittgenstein, which is a poor substitute for the original. Even so, some people have tried to take these ideas and run with them into the study of politics or social norms.

    My blog title is an (overreaching) spin on his “Philosophical Investigations”.

  2. @note 2: How do birds flock, bees swarm, or fish form schools? Do they have a committee meeting beforehand to decide who the leaders will be? Or is it possible that a few simple behaviors, taking local information as input sources, can generate wildly complex self-regulating systems? I thought this notion was the foundation of small government idealists.

    Maybe we should repurpose the term “irreal” to describe phenomena that classical physics can’t adequately describe. Conscious human activity is irreal. I don’t see this catching on anytime soon, but it’s convenient to think outside of simple duality when describing emergent phenomena.

    In computer science, these levels of irreality are referred to as “abstraction layers.” It might help to think of these facts in those terms. Taxes and interest rates and corporal punishment and postnatal abortion can’t be discussed outside of the context of the social abstraction layer, the same way a device driver doesn’t make sense when you’re gesturing at a crate full of transistors.

  3. It’s perfectly acceptable for JHS boys to hold hands and cuddle in class, but you’re skating on thin ice if a male pats a girl on the back for a job well done.

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